Saturday 28 December 2013

Love Me or Leave Me by Kristine Mason @KristineMason7

Chapter 1

“SOLD.” CARTER JAMES stared at the Clifton Park, New York 1970s split-level house and imagined the For Sale sign he’d place in the middle of the yard. Between what the house was currently worth and what his competitor would do to it during the renovation, he could easily calculate the numbers. The homeowners would have the additional income to move into something bigger, better and would be insane not to list their house. He had this one in the bag, no matter how great the renovation, no matter how much magic his competition weaved into her design.

And here she comes now

Brynn Dawson pulled her late nineties Ford Bronco alongside the curb. Every time he saw that SUV anger and frustration seeped into his chest. She shouldn’t have had to sell her Audi, but thanks to her ex, she’d been forced to sell off a lot of things to help with her debt. For what that piece of shit, Trevor, had put her through, Carter would love nothing more than to slam Trevor’s smug face into the wall. He wouldn’t, though. Well, he would if he knew for a fact he could get away with it and not have assault charges brought against him. He did have a reputation to maintain.

Focused now on the Bronco, he waited for her to step out of it. Seconds later, a long leg dangled from the driver’s side door. Creamy and toned, he’d spent more time than he’d ever admit fantasizing about what it would be like to touch her, taste her, feel those long legs wrapped around his back. 

His heart rate sped up when the rest of her curvy figure exited the vehicle. A hot breeze tossed her wavy, strawberry blonde hair and she sent him a big smile. The woman had no idea how crazy he was about her. He wanted to tell her, see if she felt anything for him beyond their friendship, but there’d never been a right time. They’d met three years ago when they both signed on to do the reality show, Renovate or Relocate. During the years they’d known each other, she’d been either engaged or going through a major split. 

Normally he had no qualms when it came to going after what he wanted. And he wanted Brynn. In this instance, he’d forced himself to be patient and bide his time. Although her ex had broken her financially, he hadn’t broken her tenacious spirit. But Trevor and all the crap he’d put her through had left her distracted. Being preoccupied with her ex’s threats and attorney had, unfortunately, bled into her renovations. Carter didn’t want to add to her list of distractions. When he let her know his true feelings, he wanted her clear headed and free and clear of her ex. He pictured slamming Trevor into the wall again. Even though she was no longer engaged, her ex still stood in the way. 

“Home sweet home,” Brynn said as she made her way toward him and looked at the split-level house. “This one is all mine.” 

Her perfume, something sweet and citrusy caught on the breeze and made him want to haul her into his arms and find out if she tasted as good as she smelled. “Don’t get too cocky,” he said with a smile. “We haven’t seen the inside.”

She eyed the meticulously manicured hedges and flourishing flowerbeds. “It can’t be that bad, not with the way the yard looks.” 

“Famous last words,” he said and arched a brow. Although he loved her optimism, he’d seen the house’s floor plan. She might have mad design skills, but it would take a miracle and a hell of a lot of money to turn this home into what the family needed. Which included an extra bedroom and more square footage. 

“Now who’s being cocky?” She glanced over her shoulder. “Why is Derek here?”

Derek Delmont, Renovate or Relocate’s producer, stood next to his rented black Cadillac talking on his cell phone.

“Not sure. He’s been on the phone since I’ve been here.”

“Looks like he’s not anymore,” she said and waved to the producer.

Derek pocketed his cell phone and approached them. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Jim and his camera crew are on the way and should be here any minute. You know the drill. They’ll do some shots outside, then follow you into the house.” He handed Carter the keys to the split-level. “From there, it’s business as usual.” His cell phone rang, but he ignored it. “Brynn, I’d like to have a word before I go.”

Carter met Brynn’s questioning eyes before she followed Derek to his Cadillac. Instead of staring after them, Carter looked to the split-level and then glanced at the neighboring homes. While trying to act nonchalant, his mind and heart raced. Derek rarely showed up on the set. With the number of shows he produced, he didn’t have the time. Derek’s reason for being here today not only piqued his curiosity, but had him on edge. He’d been worried about Brynn, and about the way she’d allowed what had been going on in her personal life to affect her professionally. 

This episode of Renovate or Relocate would mark the show’s season finale. They’d already done seven shows and of the seven, only two homeowners had loved Brynn’s designs and decided to stay in their newly renovated homes. Was that what Derek wanted to talk to her about? With that question in mind, he allowed his curiosity to get the better of him. Pretending to retrieve something from his SUV, he watched the exchange between Derek and Brynn.  

The hope and excitement brightening her pretty face only moments ago had vanished. With her brow puckered and her mouth twisted in a frown, she hugged herself. Whatever Derek was saying couldn’t be good news. Tension coiled through Carter’s body and sank its claws into his shoulders. Brynn didn’t need another blow. Not to her ego and certainly not her finances. While he wasn’t privy to what she made—on the show or with her off-air clientele—she’d made it clear that her ex was forcing her to drain her bank account. Between her attorney’s fees and what she owed Trevor, Carter doubted she could afford to lose her job as the TV show’s designer.

Derek pushed off the Cadillac and approached Brynn, resting a hand on her shoulder. She gave the producer a small smile and nodded. Still hugging herself, she remained near the curb even after Derek drove away. 

Anxious to hear what Derek said, Carter closed the Infiniti’s door and met her at the end of the driveway. “Everything okay?” he asked just as a van pulled along the curb. Jim jumped out of the passenger side, while one of the cameramen exited the back of the van. 

“Oh, yeah.” She clenched her jaw and thinned her lips in a tight smile. “Everything’s fine. No worries.”

She’s lying. Based on her rigid posture and the way she rapidly blinked, as if trying not to cry, his gut tightened with concern and suspicion. “From where I stood it seemed like—”

“Hey, guys,” Jim called as he headed down the sidewalk to the driveway. “You ready?”

Carter leaned in, fought the urge to hold her. Whatever burden Derek had added to her shoulders, she didn’t have to handle it on her own. A born fixer, he’d find out what had transpired between her and the producer and make it go away. “We’ll discuss this later,” he said, stepped back and smiled at Jim. “As always, just waiting on you.” 

When Carter pulled away, Brynn struggled to keep her knees from buckling. After the bomb Derek just dropped on her, the sudden need to lean on Carter and soak up the strength and confidence he oozed, overwhelmed her. What Derek had told her had left her stunned. And worried.

I’m going to be replaced.

Her stomach knotted. She could not lose her job. Only ten thousand dollars away from being out from under Trevor’s thumb and with no Plan B, she needed to remain part of Renovate or Relocate. But because only two families had chosen to stay in their homes after her renovation, Derek had been forced to give her an ultimatum. The sponsors of the show weren’t happy that appliances they’d either donated or discounted weren’t being featured enough or weren’t appealing enough to keep the families from leaving. As for the viewers, according to Derek, the show used to have hundreds of thousands of applicants wanting to participate on the show. That number had dwindled by the thousands each time she lost to Carter.

Now, she had to do her best to ensure the owners of this split-level stayed in their house and didn’t purchase whatever home Carter found for them. Otherwise, she was out of a job.

Her throat tightened and her eyes burned. She ground her teeth and willed herself not to cry. At least not now. Later, when she was back at the kitchenette suite she would use during the duration of the show, she’d let the tears fall. For now, she had to maintain her game face. In a few minutes, she would have to go in front of the cameras and would prefer to do so without raccoon eyes.

Jim took the house key from Carter. “Then let’s do this,” the director said. “We’ve got two weeks and no time to waste.”

She snapped to attention. No. She would not go down without a fight. Fortunately, Jim was the only member of the crew aware of her potential firing. She was thankful no one else knew, especially Carter. While he was the competition, they were also friends and she cared what happened to him. If she were to be replaced, he could be affected, too. Who’s to say Derek wouldn’t simply clean house and start fresh?

She couldn’t let that happen and needed to kick some serious butt and save her career. She’d been down before. Hell, thanks to Trevor, she was still down. But she’d never been out. Not yet, hopefully not ever.

After Jim stepped away, Carter moved next to her. The intensity in his dark eyes had that urge to lean against him returning with a fury. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, his tone quiet and skeptical.

Clearing her throat, she straightened her shoulders. “Sure, I’m sure.” She plastered on a smile and glanced at Jim, who waved them over. “Time to do this,” she said and worried Carter would read between the lies, she walked toward the director.

Jim had brought Vic and Larry with him. Vic was to film them outside of the house, while Larry had already taken the key from Jim and made his way into the home. After Vic adjusted his camera, Jim directed her and Carter. He had them do their typical opening. When she normally faced the camera and did the walk up the driveway, she had hope in her heart and a fire in her belly. Her hope had died after her discussion with Derek, but the fire in her belly remained. She had to succeed with this house. If the homeowners decided to sell it, even after what she did for them, she was in serious trouble. No ten thousand dollar bonus, no job, no source of income, major debt…big trouble.

After they finished the walk up the driveway, they stopped at the front door, turned and faced each other with their arms crossed. At this point, Carter usually wore an arrogant grin, while his eyes held a hint of playfulness. Their competition was good-natured, not serious. With her job on the line, along with the ten thousand dollar bonus that would eliminate her debt to Trevor, the competition was now serious. According to Derek, Carter didn’t know this. Yet instead of wearing his usual self-assured smile for the camera, his mouth was set in a grim line and his eyes weren’t playful, but instead, filled with what she considered anxiety and maybe suspicion. 

“Cut,” Jim said and motioned to Vic. “Didn’t you two get your caffeine ration this morning?” He shook his head. “That was lame. Let’s try again.”

They went through the same routine two more times, until Jim finally gave them the okay. “Good.” He nodded. “We’re right on schedule.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay, Vic, head inside and work the opposite angles to Larry.”

Carter opened the front door and Brynn’s stomach rolled.

Please let this house be okay. Nothing major. Nothing earthshattering. Please let this house be okay. Nothing major. Nothing earthshattering.

The mantra filtered through her head as she walked over the threshold, then it came to an abrupt halt. Hope filled her empty stomach as she glanced around the foyer.

“Don’t get excited,” Carter said. “Yes, there’s a lot of space for a family of six, but I see a lot of wasted space.”

He was right about that, but it was hard not to be excited. The foyer was great. Hardwood floors led to a tiled floor in the kitchen. She’d fix that if it was on the homeowner’s list and make the transition less choppy. Regardless, the space was open and airy with high ceilings and a lovely chandelier hanging in the foyer. To her right, she found a coat closet. To her left, an enormous living room that led into a formal dining room. Both were tastefully carpeted and painted with neutral colors.

“It’s kind of hard not to get excited,” she said. “This space might be wasted now, but with a few tweaks, I’ll make it work.”

“Yeah, well, let’s check out the kitchen.”

Larry walked backward into the kitchen and kept the camera aimed on them, while she caught Vic in her peripheral vision coming along the side. When she stepped into the kitchen, her earlier excitement deflated.

“Hello?” Carter used his hand as if it were an imaginary phone. “Is this 1975? Yeah, we’ve found your kitchen. You can have it back.” He shoved his hand in his pocket. “Just saying.”

She grinned. “I’ll admit, it’s small, but with a little of this and a little of that…” Seriously. That’s all she needed to do. Blow out the wall to the dining room, add some extra cabinets on the free wall, maybe put in an island. Piece of cake. She looked out the kitchen window. “Oh, wow. Fenced in backyard, big shed, beautiful landscaping. Looks like the homeowners spent a lot of time on their yard. That’ll be hard to walk away from.”

He frowned. “So the yard is great, who cares? I’ll find them a new one. Let’s head downstairs. I’ve seen the specs on this house. It’s not pretty.”

While she hadn’t seen the home’s specs, she’d been in enough split-levels to have a general idea of what was waiting for her. The downstairs family room didn’t disappoint. Roomy, with a nice fireplace, she could see the family spending loads of time in this space, especially once she’d given it a little updating. She looked to her right, saw the large laundry room and sent Carter what she hoped was a self-assured smile. “I’d say this was very pretty.” Are you kidding me? The room was huge, with decent cabinets and a modern washer and dryer. She didn’t see one thing she’d change. 

“This house has a partial basement,” Carter said and nodded to his left. “There are six people in this family. They should have a full basement they could use for storage and a nice rec area.”

She craned her neck and grew more confident. “Looks like plenty of space to me.” Although one side was cluttered with boxes, a big workbench and tools, the other side was being used as a small rec area. Furniture from the 1980s sat on top of remnant carpeting, which was littered with tons of kids’ toys. Aware of the camera and her role on the show, she grinned, then sniffed. “Is that fear I’m smelling?”

He half-smiled, while his eyes glittered with amusement. “Ah, you’re mistaken. That’s the smell of victory. You haven’t seen the half bath and downstairs bedroom. Come on.”

He led her back into the family room and down a short hallway. The half bath was typical and updated. “Okay,” he said. “So the powder room is fine. But what about this?” He opened the closed door at the end of the hallway. “Holy…yep.” He sniffed. “That’s definitely victory you were smelling.”

The homeowners were using the bedroom as an office. A very cluttered, disorganized office with ugly, outdated furniture. “Some shelving units here and there, then voila. A very useable room.” She followed him back up the stairs. “Seriously, Carter, you’re reaching. This house is in great shape.”

He stopped at the steps leading to the upstairs level where she hoped to find four bedrooms. Holding the rails, he turned to her and raised his dark brows. “This house is in great shape for a family of four. Let me show you why.”

Damn. Normally she didn’t care that he had the upper hand and could look at the home’s specs before she did. But she needed this house to be easy. She needed to make this family want to stay. 

She smiled despite her wavering confidence. “Please do.”

When they reached the top landing, she looked to her left. “The master bedroom?”

“You got it,” he said and followed her inside.

Larry was already in the room filming. She didn’t have to mask her emotions for the camera because the room was large with plenty of space. It also had a good-sized, walk-in closet with built-in shelves. “Still not seeing a problem.”

Carter walked to the far corner of the room and pointed to an opened door. “Sure about that.”  

She met him at the door and peeked inside. “So it’s small for a master bathroom.” Very small. Actually, the bathroom reminded her more of a closet with a shower, toilet and sink shoved inside.

Carter looked directly at the camera and sniffed. “I’m really smelling victory now.”

She brushed past him, her eyes on the camera’s lens. “Notice how he’s smelling victory near the bathroom? Kinda makes you wonder…”

Larry grinned and held the camera steady. She walked out of the room and was met by Vic, who had his camera aimed on her as he moved backward. “I see they have a full bathroom.” She looked inside, and while it wasn’t the biggest bathroom, it had been updated and worked.

“Yes, I know. This house has two full baths and a half bath. Which is great, again, for a family of four.” He stepped in front of one of the two closed doors at the end of the hallway. “Here’s why.”

When he opened the door, she did have to mask her disappointment this time. Clearly a boys room and clearly being shared by three of them, the room was small and claustrophobic. Bunk beds were along one wall and a full-sized bed flanked the other. There was barely enough space to move between beds, and the closets were shallow and offered no storage. Not good. This room wasn’t built to house three kids.

“Well?” Carter asked. “Smelling anything yet?”

“Just your overblown ego.”

He looked at the camera. “She’s making me self-conscious. I might have to change my cologne.”

Grinning, she opened the last bedroom door. While she loved the way Carter smelled, earthy, musky and very male, and even if the cameras weren’t on them, she would never tell him. Not because he had a big ego, he didn’t. But because he might end up with the wrong impression. 

Or maybe the right one

Yeah, and if she let him know she’d been thinking about him outside of the show, outside of their friendship, that could end up a total disaster. He’d never once hinted at being interested in her. If anything, since her break up with Trevor, he’d kept her at a distance. Besides, she didn’t have time to think about Carter in any way other than the competition. She had a house to design and a job to keep.

“Now do you see why this family needs to move?” he asked, his big body crowding her at the threshold of the small bedroom, undoubtedly used for a little girl. “The crib and dresser take up more than half the room. And look at the bookshelf.”

“It’s shaped like a doll house. I love it.”

“Yeah, and it takes up an entire corner of the room.”

She stepped inside and opened the closet. “Plenty of room here.”

“For a two year old,” he said. “But picture a teenage girl trying to fit all her clothes in there. Not going to happen.”

Remembering her own clothes fetish as a teenager, a fetish she’d carried into adulthood, she had to agree with him. Just not on camera. She maintained a poker face. “I think you’re wrong. I can make this house work for them.” 

“Only with the right budget.”

“True. But before you become too smug for your own good, we need to meet with the homeowners and find out exactly what they need.” She turned off the bedroom light. “You haven’t seen their list of requirements for a new house or your budget.”

“Cut,” Jim said, then told Vic and Larry to take more footage of the house for the editing department to use. “The homeowners are Mario and Gina Milano.” He checked his watch. “They’re at the neighbor’s house across the street. Once Vic and Larry are finished, I’ll grab them.” He turned to her. “I told you I wanted Julia here by ten. I’ll need to get footage of you and her going through the house and coming up with your plan of attack after we’re done with the homeowners.”


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Genre – Contemporary Romance

Rating – PG-13

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